A Question of Balance

If we take a balance of self-interest on one side and community responsibility on the other I believe the scale would tip in favour of self-interest in the developing world. Is this because of the more recent history of poverty here? Is it because tribal affiliations, especially in Africa, are closer to the surface? Possibly, but it might also be because consciousness and particularly self-examination has taken root in the developed world but not yet (at least to the same extent and for the most part) in Africa, Central and South Asia, Central and South America or in the far East. Why? And before we go on, what is this self-examination?

Humankind is conscious (most of the time). Through our consciousness we connect socially with others who are also conscious. We use Theory of Mind (ToM) for this. Through ToM we are able to identify and to empathise with the hopes, aspirations and fears of our fellows. Here I must qualify: we empathise with those fellows in our own groups but not necessarily with those of neighbouring groups. Each group develops its own Theory of Mind. We get culture clashes between groups when we don’t have a full understanding of the ToM of those in the other group. We apply our own ToM without ‘seeing’ into theirs. As conscious beings we are also able to identify ourselves in the mirror. We see a reflection of our ‘person’, who we are or who we think we are (despite Blackmore’s 1999 and Hood’s 2012 observations), looking back at us (see More Me, Myself and I above). This is one aspect of self-examination.

Now, Chimps, Dolphins and other higher mammals are also conscious beings. Some have the ability to recognise their selves in a mirror. But are they capable of self-examination? If we look at it on a strictly physical level, then yes. Gallup (1970) painted a spot on a chimp’s forehead to test the recognition of self by the chimp. The chimp performed a physical examination of the spot, associating it with his/her own reflection. That’s all well and good but we need to understand how self-examination can occur on a psychological level. Who do we think we are? I believe that no other higher primate or higher order mammal apart from humans has this capacity. I may be mistaken. Chimps may have a rudimentary capacity but how can they communicate this to us? Have experiments been set up to discover this? Chimps are certainly emotive, rational and irrational, conscious beings who employ ToM to ascertain the social motives of other individuals in their communities. But can they reflect upon their own actions or the outcomes of their actions? Do they experience remorse, guilt? Do these attributes verify the capacity for self-examination? Possibly. More work needs to be done in the way higher primates see themselves.

Humans however, do have the capacity through self-examination to self-reflect. Hamlet’s soliloquy (“To be or not to be”) is a study in self-reflection. Self-reflection can come from remorse (“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking” or “How could I be so stupid?”). It can come with a solitary moment of meditation (“The only living boy in New York”). I hazard to suggest that self-reflection at the level of meditation is uniquely human. We can now consider the issue of conscience. Self-examination and self-reflection allow us to access conscience. In 60 Posts I suggest that

The idea of ‘inner sense’ is good. It is what Joyce (2006; and others) calls ‘innate’. Joyce surmises that “morality [and therefore he argues, conscience, which has its basis in moral judgment] exists in virtually every human individual (see here for reference).

Conscience lends a moral dimension to self-examination. When we are faced with a moral choice (“Should we return the lost wallet to its rightful owner or take the money and run?”) we make a conscious decision. We can reflect on it, asking ourselves ‘what is the right thing to do?’. So, if conscience is accessible to every member of our society we might then ask why, according to Transparency International, is the call upon conscience weaker in 66-75% of the world’s population? And why, in some parts of the developed world is there a greater sense of community responsibility, as witnessed by our flood victims and volunteers in Britain? It comes down to a question of balance. More yet to come.


About johnderonde

UK-based charity worker in Tanzania
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